At its core, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is about tragedy.
Its main characters suffer a heavy loss that isn’t spelled out right at the beginning, but as the film progresses, we learn more about these characters and how they both come to terms with what they’ve lost and how it’s changed their lives.
The film begins in a restaurant where we meet our main couple: Eleanor Rigby, played by Jessica Chastain, and Connor Ludlow, played by James McAvoy. Connor asks Eleanor if she’d love him if he didn’t pay for dinner. We’re off to a great start. Luckily, Eleanor has been down this road before. She leaves first. Connor follows, but he’s stopped when one of the waiters reminds him of the check. Connor and Eleanor bolt and make their way into a field where they kiss and watch fireflies in the night.
Following this, we see Eleanor riding her bike, but she soon abandons it and begins walking along the bridge. She looks over the bridge and, after brief consideration, scales the gate and jumps into the water. I guess Jessica Chastain really didn’t want to be in this movie.
Nah, she survives. She’s soon discharged from the hospital and taken home, where we meet her family: her father, Julian, played by William Hurt, Mary, played by Isabelle Hupert, and Katy, played by Jess Wiexler. Eleanor is going to be moving in for the time being and doesn’t mind the fact that most of her stuff is still in the city. Julian asks what Eleanor plans to do now, but Eleanor isn’t in the mood for a speech and doesn’t want to discuss Connor at all.
Back in the city, Connor and one of his bar coworkers, Stu, played by Bill Hader, discuss the possibility that maybe Eleanor wants Connor to chase after her. After a brief fight with some less than pleasant patrons, Connor makes a call to Eleanor’s phone, but the number is no longer in service. He makes a second call to Eleanor’s mother and does get through, but the second he asks about Eleanor, he’s met with a dial tone.
As luck would have it, Eleanor and Julian are on their way to New York University, when Stu happens to pass them by on his bike. Their talk is brief, but it’s clear that Eleanor is less than enthused about the unexpected run-in than Stu.
Eleanor heads to NYU and meets one of her father’s old colleagues, Lillian Friedman, played by Viola Davis. Right from the start, Professor Friedman wants to know why Eleanor is signing up for her class. Eleanor’s reason is that the class sounded interesting, but Friedman chalks it up to Eleanor being just part of the generation of too many choices. Are we that indecisive about our lives? Anyway, according to Friedman, Eleanor’s father gave her no prior warning that she’d be meeting his daughter. More than that, Friedman isn’t into nepotism. Smart professor. I instantly like her. That said, there may still be room.
Connor and Stu talk, with Connor wanting Stu to cheer him up. That’s pretty hard, considering Stu has tried to help before, but got nowhere. Connor asks Stu if he saw the separation coming. From one best friend to another, Connor wants Stu’s opinion. Stu responds by quoting the lyrics to “Love is a Battlefield.” I like Stu. Stu wants to help, he does, and he’s tried talking with Connor before, but he doesn’t know how to be his friend right now. He admits to seeing Eleanor. Luckily, if Eleanor does not want to see Connor, he is smart enough to respect her wishes and keep his distance.
Yeah, he starts stalking her. He begins by following her to the train station she takes, but stops short of going into the station himself.
Due to Connor’s money situation, he’s now moving in to live with his father, Spencer, played by Ciarán Hinds. Their relationship is already strained from past differences, as Connor has given his father crap for not stepping up his parental role. Spencer says that he and his son are similar, but Connor doesn’t buy that at all. And when Spencer tells his son that he shouldn’t be interested in regretting things, Connor simply says that he isn’t.
So right after this, he follows Eleanor into her class. From a few seats behind, he borrows pen and paper to scribble a note that’s awkwardly passed to her. When Eleanor spots Connor, she leaves the class. Connor follows behind, but Eleanor just wants him to leave her the fuck alone. Fair enough. Connor apparently didn’t look both ways before crossing the street because as he walks away, he’s soon struck by a taxi. As Eleanor approaches Connor’s body, someone asks if she knows him, and it’s here that Eleanor acknowledges Connor as her husband.
When Connor awakens, he and Eleanor have a moment to talk. He asks where she’s living, but Eleanor isn’t giving that up. He remarks that they had something good and it helped solve all of their problems, but he just wants a chance to talk it out. He doesn’t get that chance, as the paramedics come to take Connor to the hospital.
Eleanor returns home and finds that her mother has prepared a giant feast. Why? Because Julian has a special guest over: a friend from the psychology department.
A now pissed Eleanor is upset that her father sandbagged her, even though he just wants to help her with her circumstance. She’s more upset at the fact that he wouldn’t just talk to her himself. After losing a grandson, however, Julian doesn’t know the best way to help his daughter. At the most, he’s asking her to take one session a week, but Eleanor isn’t interested in seeing another therapist. She wants to stop being reminded that something is wrong with her. Julian remarks that tragedy is a foreign country: he doesn’t know how to talk to the natives. If anyone out there reading this- for some reason- has ever heard anyone say something remotely similar to that, let me know.
Eleanor and Professor Friedman bond a bit over lunch and we learn more about the professor: her husband was a vegan and she herself has no idea why people have kids. She isn’t a fan of labor- and I’d be hard pressed to find a woman who is- and she doesn’t know what she ultimately wants to do with her life. Few of us do, Professor. When Eleanor asks why Friedman why she left her husband, her response is that he was soft, but she stayed hard.
Over at the bar, Connor’s money woes continue. Not a lot of money has been coming in and Connor himself has missed some bills. And he doesn’t have a clear plan B. He’s brought out of his funk by another bartender, Alexis, played by Nina Arianda. Her plan B is to get her real estate license, which she believes will look better when it comes to her serving alcohol. She kisses him and is raring to get it on, and so is he, but he tells her that tomorrow will be awkward. Don’t say that.
Afterward, Connor is in a funk, but takes a train to visit Eleanor’s. She’s not there, so he speaks with her mother instead. Mary does at least let him in and the two get a chance to talk. She doesn’t comment on how Eleanor is doing. She admits that when she first met Connor, she thought he was some smug, obnoxious kid. Despite that, Connor and Eleanor did fall in love. He can’t chalk what happened to destiny. All he can do is move forward.
And all I can do is hold it there. I need better ways to stop discussing a film’s plot.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby doesn’t spell out its conflict for you right at the start. Similar to The Skeleton Twins, one of the first things to happen is a main character tries to kill themselves and fails. It’s from this that the movie begins to work backward to explain what brought both Eleanor and Connor to this point and what led to the dissolution of their marriage. Heck, consider how long until we learn that Connor and Eleanor were even married. At the start, it’s never explained: are they dating? Have they been in a relationship for a long time? From how Chastain and McAvoy play off of each other, it seems as if they’ve been committed for quite some time, but we learn more about this as the film progresses.
A bit of background, since I think this is necessary to establish. So the full and more accurate title to this film would be The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Director Ned Benson showcased two versions of this last year: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him. This film is a combination of both. I don’t understand why this didn’t just start off as one film initially. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see how that would work in the film’s favor, but I’m not a director. Sure, two separate films show that Eleanor and Connor remember two different versions of what happened and what led them to this point, but all of that can come across through dialogue.
We get a slow unraveling of who Connor and Eleanor are and who they were before tragedy struck, and the film takes care to give us a good amount on both sides- though it leans in Eleanor’s favor, in my opinion- to know how they’ve both been affected. The film examines how we as people communicate when we experience the pain of loss. Do we look for a pity party? Honesty? Do we just want a shoulder to cry on, or try to mask our pain and move on with our lives? Enduring pain is prevalent throughout the movie. At one point, Eleanor asks her father how his marriage lasted for so long, and he’s not entirely sure. He knows that he and his wife endured. Despite the good and bad times, if things don’t go our way, we shouldn’t just run for the hills, no matter how rational of a decision that may seem.
Like Eleanor and Professor Friedman discuss, few of us know what we ultimately want in our lives, so we try and make the most of what we have. It’s part of the reason, I think, that Eleanor is randomly taking a college course, even though she doesn’t have or need to. Sometimes a change of pace is necessary. That’s not the case for Connor, who admitted that he wanted to go back to the mundane bullshit that was his life. This goes hand in hand with characters examining themselves in order to get to root of their problems on their own. Eleanor, for example, isn’t interested in having another shrink try to get inside of her head, so she walks around and, for the most part, acts as if all is well in her life.
This isn’t your traditional love story. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of love throughout the film. A lot of the warmer moments we get with Connor and Eleanor come through flashbacks, where we see them happier and more carefree. The flashbacks themselves are vibrant and full of energy. We see them munch on Twizzlers in a car and playfully argue over music, then try to make the most out of their car being stuck during heavy rains. These moments are in stark contrast to the moments where the two reminisce about how good they once had it. They realize that they can never get back to the way they were: someplace good.
Despite the seriousness, there’s quite a lot of humor in the film. Viola Davis is fantastic in her role as Professor Friedman and is dripping with dry, sarcastic lines that I wish the movie had more of her. When she finds Eleanor sitting outside of a classroom, she reminds her of this great new invention called a chair. She detests the idea of raising a child that eventually grows into a rebellious punk, speaking from her own experience. But she openly admits that she has no idea how to live her life, despite coming off as more seasoned than Eleanor. While she may be older and more mature, she doesn’t know everything.
Another funny performance came in the form of Bill Hader. This role isn’t as serious as the one he played in The Skeleton Twins, but he’s not playing a character just for comedic effect. He takes pride in his culinary ability, which ends up leading to one of the funnier scenes in the movie where Stu and Connor fight in the kitchen and both end up exhausted.
But James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are the real stars here. I love the way they smile at one another during flashbacks, like they’ve been a couple for years. That comes across through their chemistry. When Eleanor and Connor argue, it feels like they’ve been down this road plenty of times before. While Connor wants to continue bringing up the past, Eleanor keeps her eyes forward. And yet, the two still comfort one another when needed. Connor doesn’t like the idea of shacking up with one of his coworkers because he knows he’ll feel guilty about it even though, at the time, Eleanor wasn’t giving him the time of day anymore.
Chastain in particular stands out because of how much pain there is in Eleanor’s face. There’s a lot of heartache and tragedy behind those eyes and she would rather someone talk to her straight- as Professor Friedman does- rather than try and pass the buck, as her father does sometimes, but not all of the time. She was, by far, the most enjoyable performance in the film. That’s not to downplay McAvoy, as he plays Connor as a man who wonders how he happened to fall in love with a specific person that he can’t get out of his head. It’s just that Chastain’s performance resonated with me more.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby can be fun, but it’s more melancholy and insightful as it asks how we come to terms with a great loss. Do we really know what is best in life after we’ve suffered heartbreak? Is it better to move forward and never look back, or take time out to realize that things can never go back to the way they used to be? Do we mask our emotions or open up? Even more, do we even need to open up if we can figure it out on our own? With strong performances from McAvoy and Chastain at the helm, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an enjoyable romance that, while teetering on cliché at times through some of its dialogue, is an enjoyable viewing.